How to Be Creative (according to John Cleese)

I recently found this video of John Cleese presenting several tips for managing your time to become more creative. I found these tips to be very simple to follow and plan to use this myself on some upcoming projects. The following is a summary his presentation. If you have the time, I highly recommend watching the whole thing.

According to research referenced by John, those who are most creative do not have any special talent or IQ. Rather, they have acquired a facility for getting themselves into a childlike mood where they are allowed to play with ideas, not for any practical purpose but for enjoyment. If you want to be creative, you need to practice getting into this mindset.

He points out that there are two modes of thinking: open and closed. The closed mode is our normal mode of operation while at work. It’s when we are purpose driven, have lots to do, not enough time, and may be a cause of stress. The open mode on the other hand is a relaxed state of mind when we are more contemplative or even humorous. This is not the same thing as being idle, however. Being in the open mode encourages creative idea generation.

When brainstorming solutions to a difficult problem we need to be in the open mode. Once you have an idea, switch to the closed mode to implement the solution. If you get stuck, switch back to open mode.

John says we too often get stuck in the closed mode. We can get tunnel vision attempting to accomplish our goals. He criticizes the formal attitude of business meetings–who can come up with great ideas while being so reserved? It’s important to encourage creativity and even humor in meetings.

Certain conditions make it more likely you will get into the open mode:

  1. Space – Find a quiet, undisturbed space where you can work. The goal is to have a space-time oasis away from the real world.
  2. Time – We can’t be in open mode all the time. Designate a fixed amount of time– say 90 minutes–during which you ignore all distractions to brainstorm. It’s common to start thinking about things you should be doing instead. Ignore those thoughts. You have to make time for creativity to happen.
  3. Time (again) – Don’t accept the first answer you come up with; keep playing with the problem until you are satisfied with the solution.
  4. Confidence – Be open to anything.  You may not find an answer but this is okay.
  5. Humor is the fastest way to get into the open mood. Inject humor into a serious meeting where creative, original solutions are needed; don’t consider it to be taboo.

When you are brainstorming, keep your mind near the subject. It is like daydreaming. Sooner or later you will get a gift from your subconscious… but only if you put in the pondering time.

John says he can get even more creative when there are two people involved. But don’t play with someone that makes you feel defensive. Don’t criticize what is being said. Use phrases like “let’s pretend” or “can you clarify” to keep the discussion productive.

If you are stuck, try making random connections. Don’t get fooled by randomness though. The connections are only useful if they create new meaning. Use your intuition to determine if the connections have significance to you. Sometimes deliberately absurd connections– “intermediate impossibles”–can be used as a stepping stone to an idea that is right. When you are playing, nothing is wrong.